What Are Israel’s Chances at Securing U.S. Visa Waivers

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Travelers at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, U.S., last year.
Travelers at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, U.S., last year.Credit: MIKE SEGAR/רויטרס

Two months have passed since U.S. President Joe Biden declared that the United States is willing to add Israel to its visa waiver program, which would reap economic and security benefits for both countries. However, not everyone is optimistic about the feasibility of adding Israel to the program, as the United States sets eligibility requirements that are difficult to achieve and would require both Israel and the U.S. to adapt legislation and security policies.

There are currently 38 countries whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa, where they can stay up to 90 days for purposes related to tourism or business.

One of the main barriers to Israel joining the visa waiver program is America's demand that a country's non-immigrant visa refusal rate not exceed 3 percent, which refers to the amount of times foreigners applying for U.S. visitor visas are rejected. Two years ago, Israel's refusal rate was 4.2 percent, and last year it spiked to 6.7 percent. Israelis applying for visas might be turned down for a number of reasons: Young Israelis traveling after completing their army service may be rejected over suspicions that they will stay in the U.S. for longer than three months to travel or work. Others are refused visas because of mistakes made while filling out complicated visa forms.

President Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office in August.Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP

The United States also requires that Israel provide it with any criminal history a visa applicant has, and states that it would do the same for Americans seeking a visa to Israel. This is a complex agreement that is currently under discussion between the two countries, and would require changes to legislation in both. Moreover, in order to receive a visa waiver, changes would have to be made to security procedures put in place during the intifada, so that Palestinians who are U.S. citizens would be able to enter Israel without delay.

“At the theoretical level, everything has a solution,” a source familiar with the talks said. However, while some sources feel disagreements can be resolved in a few months, others say that bureaucracy could bury the move. “You have to take the possibility of this happening with a grain of salt. It’s not certain that Israel can meet the American requirements, and it’s doubtful that the gaps can be closed and the disagreements solved in a reasonable amount of time,” a diplomatic source said.

A sign pointing toward the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, in 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Croatia, which this year joined the visa waiver program, negotiated with the United States for over six years. Israel has been talking with the United States for a similar amount of time, but still not has met its requirements.

The rate of progress in discussions between the various joint working groups is also undesirably slow. Meetings are fruitful, but they take place only once every few months. Some Israeli officials hope that the United States will send a delegation to Israel to discuss the matter with the Foreign Ministry until agreement is reached.

Last week U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas reiterated the U.S. commitment to trying to include Israel in the visa waiver program.

"We have four candidates in the pipeline: Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania," Mayorkas said on Tuesday at a travel industry event. "We're very, very focused on the program," he added, saying it provides significant economic and security benefits.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan was quick to welcome the move. “We continue to work with all our strength so that Israeli citizens will be able to enter the United States freely without need of a visa, as should be with our closest ally,” he said last week. According to Erdan, “very significant progress has been made toward achieving the objective.”

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